Marcia Riley heard her 22-year-old son’s voice above a commotion of knocks and police commands. Marcus Elliott was on the phone in an apartment bathroom in some town in Texas that his mother had never heard of. He had moved to Plano to put some distance between himself and the life he was leading in Atlanta. A U.S. Marshal had called Riley to tell her they had federal warrants to arrest her son and demanded he surrender to the cops who were outside his door.
Riley tried to guide and support him through the incident. Run-ins with police in Georgia had piled up. On at least one occasion she co-signed to help him make bond. She was proud that Marcus had earned his GED while serving time in county jail back home. He was making an effort to fix his life while he moved between agencies and courts and jails. She thought about her son, who weighed no more than 130 pounds, up against what sounded like dozens of police officers. “I could hear extreme fear in his voice, a tone I have never heard before,” Riley later wrote in a newspaper essay. She convinced Elliott to give himself up. “I assured my son that he would be safe.”
Her son’s life was in the hands of law enforcement 800 miles away from her. Officers drove Elliott to the Collin County Jail. Jailers there placed Elliott on suicide watch as soon as he was booked in on June 28, 2007. Officers at the scene reported Elliott threatened to take his own life throughout their encounter with him. Detention staff that day had already sent a 45-year-old inmate to a hospital after he was found unconscious; the man later died from suicide. Back in Atlanta, a fog of anxiety and confusion settled over Riley as she dialed the jail’s main phone line repeatedly. Jail staff told her Elliott could not be reached. She finally talked to him the next morning. “He was eager to get back to Atlanta, serve his time, turn his life around, and have a future,” Riley wrote of the conversation, their last.
The next day, Elliott was killed. In a struggle that lasted nearly 20 minutes, detention officers tried to force Elliott into a restraint bed. A jail nurse reported to officers they found Elliott trying to asphyxiate himself. In a custodial death report, officers claimed Elliott began to kick and swing at detention staff. Local news media and the sheriff’s office reported his death as a suicide. In reality, Elliott died after jailers strapped him into the restraint bed, according to the Collin County Medical Examiner’s Office, which ruled Elliott’s death a homicide.
Fourteen years later, Marvin Scott III would be arrested for a small amount of marijuana outside the Allen Premium Outlets. He, too, would die in custody at the Collin County Jail while being restrained. Like Elliott’s, the medical examiner would rule his death a homicide.
Scott was 12 years old when Elliott was killed. Their lives were not mirror images. The circumstances that brought them into the same jail over a decade apart were worlds away, but their lives ended in similar fashions.
Since a state law in the 1980s required jails to report all in-custody deaths to state authorities, roughly 30 people have died while in the custody of the Collin County Jail, according to reports from the Texas Attorney General’s Office. Most of those people were White, and most died from suicide. Some died from diseases they were battling before they entered the jail. Others overdosed. But two people died as a direct result of being restrained: Elliott and Scott, both Black men in their 20s who experienced a mental health crisis in their final moments.
Including Scott, 12 people have been killed under restraint in Texas jails since 2008, according to data from the Texas Commission on Jail Standards. All but one were men, and more than half were men of color. Two of those 12—about 16 percent—occurred at the Collin County Jail. (In a 2017 investigation of statewide police data, the Austin American-Statesman counted nearly 300 people who were killed by state law enforcement both in and outside of jails since 2005.)
Riley did what Scott’s mother, LaSandra Scott, has done since March: she fought for her son. These two cases in many ways measure how far the nation has come in understanding the police brutality disproportionately leveled at Black men, but they also reveal how much more needs to be done, even after a year of international protest and debate about the need for radical criminal justice reform.
Riley organized and wrote about the grief she carried. In her final years, Riley saw the mothers of slain Black men enter their own endless struggles with criminal justice systems in jurisdictions across the country. She read names such as Lezley McSpadden-Head, mother of Michael Brown of Ferguson, Mo., and Gwen Carr, Eric Garner’s mother. After Marcus was killed, Riley spent much of her last decade alive fighting for him. She died in 2016, never seeing justice for Marcus, a familiar story in this country.
Five months after Elliott’s death, Riley remained skeptical of the narrative from the sheriff’s office, which had declared that Elliott died by suicide. The medical examiner later ruled the death a homicide.
The autopsy report and the Texas Rangers investigation of the death included testimony from a jail nurse who told authorities they saw a detention officer’s knee in Elliott’s back and neck area as they wrestled him into the restraints. Riley couldn’t find an attorney in Texas to take her son’s wrongful death case. She began searching through news clips to find other cases of police killings. She read about the 2004 police killing of Leslie Prater, an unarmed Black man in Chattanooga, Tennessee and learned about how the man’s mother protested and tried to raise awareness of her son’s death. Riley looked her up in the phone book and called. Loretta Prater was in the kitchen with her relatives when her landline rang.
Riley wanted to learn more about Leslie’s killing and how authorities responded to his family’s protests. The women shared stories and learned from each other. They agreed something needed to be done about police killings. When Prater got off the phone after more than an hour, she was impressed by how determined Riley was to not only seek justice for her son but to connect with other mothers of children slain by police. The women had a bond neither asked for, but they stayed connected over email and phone calls. “We knew there were other mothers out there,” Prater said.
They formed an organization called “MOMS: Mothers of Murdered Sons.” It began as a support group for women, a space where they could talk through trauma with other people in similar situations. They built a website and published guidelines for mothers to use in the immediate aftermath of a child’s killing. Neither had such information readily available to them after their sons were killed. Even groups that advocated for families whose children were murdered did not fully embrace those whose children were killed by police, they argued.
In 2009, two more mothers joined their new organization. They attended the annual Parents of Murdered Children conference in Cincinnati. There were no sessions or pamphlets for parents who experienced what they had. MOMS applied to host its own panel discussion related to police killings at another POMC conference. They were denied.
“We felt like it was political because our children were murdered by police officers,” Prater says. “What got in the way of what we were trying to do, is there were so many people that were police sympathizers, and they more or less vilified our children.”
(Bev Warnock, the executive director of POMC, says the group welcomes anyone whose children were killed at the hands of another person, be that during a drunken driving crash, an assault, or by police. But POMC does not organize events, panels, or conduct any other research specifically regarding police killings.)
Riley’s fight was before cellphone footage on social media could change the course of an investigation or even its outcome in court. It was before Black Lives Matter kept the names of Black victims of police violence alive in the news and hashtags became tools of police accountability. As a writer who earned a Ph.D. in communications, Riley challenged the police by writing. In one essay for a Black newspaper in Tennessee, Riley shared her experience and challenged police narratives under the headline “Another Senseless Murder in A Texas Jail.” In that way, Elliott’s and Scott’s homicides and the subsequent advocacy by their families calls attention to how radical the past decade has been in the fight toward ending police brutality.
“It has been terrible all these years,” Prater says. “I would say people are waking up.”
More than a decade later, research shows how video footage shared on social media can contradict official police narratives of some in-custody deaths. Last year, a Minneapolis teenager named Darnella Frazier won a Pulitzer Prize Special Citation for filming the death of George Floyd. Her footage contradicted the official press release from the Minneapolis Police Department and helped fuel a national reckoning over race and police violence. It was played during the trial of Officer Derek Chauvin, who was convicted of murder in Floyd’s death.
In the fight for her son, Prater experienced what felt like a wall of police unions, news media, police officials, defense attorneys, and residents who did not want to hear about her son’s death at the hands of law enforcement. A scholar and author, Prater wrote a book about it called Excessive Force: One Mother’s Struggle Against Police Brutality and Misconduct and is currently working on a documentary that will feature the stories of mothers around the country whose sons were killed by police. She feels like more would have been done for her son if he had been killed in the social media age. And the same applies to Riley’s son Elliott. “Nothing ever could really get off the ground,” Prater says of their efforts on MOMS.
Just like in Elliott’s case, a Collin County grand jury declined to indict all eight of the detention officers involved in Scott’s killing. But the grand jury did recommend Collin County law enforcement officials make systemic changes in the way it restrains inmates and interacts with people suffering a mental health crisis. Sheriff Jim Skinner and District Attorney Greg Willis have come out in support of some of those suggestions.
After a year of intense protests after Floyd’s murder, it is easy to suggest the embrace of these changes by these Republican law enforcement officials is a sign of a tipping point in how courts handle cases of police killings. To others, this response is an anomaly, especially in context with how the Texas Legislature achieved no significant criminal justice reform during the recent session.
“I assured my son that he would be safe.”Marcia Riley
After Scott was killed, civil rights attorney Lee Merritt took up his family’s case. He convened news conferences, announcing developments in Scott’s investigation as the family stood by. He says it is too soon to tell whether Chauvin’s murder conviction represents a turning point in how courts handle police killings.
“What we did hear, which is rare in a relatively conservative jurisdiction like Collin County, were empathetic statements from relatively conservative actors,” Merritt said last month. “They probably view that as progress, but for the family impacted, it feels very, very patriarchal and condescending.”
Merritt said all cases of in-custody deaths should be turned over to special prosecutors from other jurisdictions.
“Local hands should be off of the investigation, and the case should proceed immediately to a special prosecutor,” Merritt says. “The rules [now] simply allow the agencies themselves to control all the evidence access, control access to witnesses, control access to video that is available. And it is often very obscure.”
Merritt, who has represented the families of slain Black men Botham Jean, Ahmaud Arbery, and Ronald Jefferson, is running as a Democrat against Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton. He says his campaign is rooted in bringing attention to the pain and suffering that occur when law enforcement is not held accountable after harming a member of the public.
“The work that families are forced to do, particularly Black families, is completely destabilizing,” he says. “There is a pattern [of] collective trauma that families have to suffer, for moms and dads in particular, but that trauma is a national trauma. That’s why we saw last summer protests in 50 states.”
Texas jail experts and justice reform advocates say there needs to be more oversight over jails and prisons in the reporting of custodial deaths.
As mandated by Texas law in 1983, jail officials must report any death of a person in the agency’s custody to the Texas Attorney General’s Office within 30 days of the death. And since 2009, county jails have been required to report inmate deaths to the TCJS. Experts say the TCJS has little power to hold jails accountable when reports are not filed or contain errors. The work of holding jails and agencies accountable resides with district attorneys, says Eva Ruth Moravec, the executive director of the Texas Justice Initiative. Under the law, agencies can face a class B misdemeanor for improperly reporting deaths. A local district attorney would have to file charges against its own sheriff’s office. “For whatever reason, it’s just not a charge that has ever been raised,” Moravec says. “There is no real way to ensure these reports are correct or that they are comprehensive.”
The Collin County District Attorney’s office did present the case to a grand jury, which declined to indict. Despite the grand jury recommendations and multiple public statements of ownership from the sheriff and district attorney, Scott’s family remains unsatisfied with the outcome of the criminal investigation into the 26-year-old’s death. (The district attorney’s office declined to comment.) With Scott’s mother always toward the front of any march or press conference, the family has made it clear they want criminal charges filed and convictions secured for all eight officers involved in the March killing. Merritt has indicated the family will advocate for federal charges if necessary.
The Collin County Sheriff’s Office declined to comment about its use of restraint devices and beds within the jail. Assistant Chief Deputy Nicol Bristol cited the then-ongoing investigation into Scott’s death as reason it would not comment. Even with the criminal investigation closed by the grand jury, the agency would not comment in anticipation of further litigation.
Krishnaveni Gundu, the co-founder and executive director of the Texas Jail Project, says further scrutiny is needed into the uses of restraints. She seconded Moravec’s assertion that oversight varies from agency to agency.
“We still keep finding people bend and break [the rules] based on the culture of a facility.” In her work for the Texas Jail Project, Gundu speaks with people who are incarcerated and their families and often finds that the inmates who need the most delicate care — people with disabilities and those experiencing mental health crises — are often the people who are placed under restraint, creating a recipe for catastrophe. “I wonder about all the stuff we don’t know about,” she says.
Prater remembers how traumatized Riley was after Elliott’s death. She says the work of crying out for justice adds its own layer on top of the grief of losing a child to police violence. Ultimately, their plan to build MOMS into a national organization never panned out; the group faded as Riley did. She was diagnosed with cancer, Prater says, and she had to focus more on beating the disease. “Marcia was the glue,” Prater says.
She died in 2016, leaving behind her writings and resources for mothers who might come after her.
“It’s tragic enough to cope with the death of a child from illness or an accident,” Riley wrote. “But it’s totally different when their life has been taken through the heinous act of another person. And it’s even more devastating when that person or group is in law enforcement — public servants under oath to protect, not commit senseless killings.”